8A. This chapter presents discoveries from Roe’s side trip to Sabbioneta, near Mantua. He had not even heard of it until a fellow traveler mentioned it to him at breakfast. The city’s unique architecture, being all designed according to the “Mannerist” style, was meant for the use of Vespasiano Gonzaga. Roe was given a tourist brochure when he arrived, that described the old city as “Little Athens”. This Gonzaga valued learning very highly and so he was known for “inviting the erudite among both Italy’s, and other western Europe’s, nobility and intelligentsia for a visit”, thus accounting for its second name or “Little Athens”. As a gathering place for scholars and intellectuals it would naturally attract the attention of many learned visitors from England as well.
By chance, toward the end of his tour there, Roe heard the guide mention that the main gate passage was also known as “il ‘Quercia dei Duca”. Since the word “Quercia” wasn’t familiar to him he asked about it and was told it meant “Oak”, so the gate was “The Duke’s Oak”. And as you know the comic rustic characters putting on Pyramus and Thisbe, met to rehearse, per Quince, “At the Duke’s Oak”.
So the setting of the play is in “Athens” and there are many references to it or to “Athenians”. However, there is no mention of Greece, Greek, Grecians, Attica or such. There is actually no mention in the play that the Duke’s Oak refers to a large Oak tree in the woods in Athens, Greece. But with all the other Italian references, especially peculiarly accurate ones, and such that only a select minority in the audience might recognize, the weight of the evidence supports this as another subtle hint of Italian knowledge insight. The reason the town’s entrance way was called “The Duke’s Oak” was that the passage opened to an oak forest where Gonzaga had a hunting ground.
A final discovery Roe made there was that there are a couple references to “temple” where the play’s marriages would take place. Roe found that there is a church in Sabbioneta, and it is in fact, called “the Temple”. And though modern editions of the play have “temple” with a non-capitalized “t”, the Quarto and First Folio have “Temple” with the “T” capitalized, as it would be for a proper noun.
The discoveries taken together, along with knowing that Vespasiano Gonzaga used Sabbioneta as a type of then modern day “Athenian academy” for intellectual and cultural seminars, supports the case that the author either personally visited this town in Italy or had unusually intimate knowledge of parts of the country and culture not available to even most native Italians. Only the well-travelled and culturally advanced, and with connections to the elite and powerful, would most likely visit such a place.